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Tools & Materials for Colored Pencil Realism

Silver and Cherries by Robert A. Sloan from Cherries #3, a reference photo available at WetCanvas.com

Silver and Cherries by Robert A. Sloan from Cherries #3, a reference photo available at WetCanvas.com

Sharpeners and Erasers

Along with good colored pencils and good paper, you'll need something to sharpen them with, a variety of erasers, something to draw on and something to draw. Solvents, pencil extenders and pencil cases can be very handy and save money in the long run by stretching your supplies farther.

Pencil sharpeners are essential. The textureless colored pencil painting methods of Arlene Steinberg's Masterful Color require you to sharpen the pencil every minute or two, and many other artists prefer a sharp point. Hand sharpeners are best, but only while they are new and the blade is fresh. Think of this like shaving, would you want to carve your skin up with an old razor or do you get the best results with a new blade?

Prismacolor's Colored Pencil Sharpener is one of the best, designed to angle the pencil so that soft Prismacolor Premier leads don't break while being sharpened. This internal breakage happens most with Prismacolor and other soft-lead colored pencils, but can happen to any of them. General's Little Red All Art sharpener is another good gentle one and has the advantage of being able to take fat pencils like Derwent Artist. Replacement blades are expensive and hard to find though. So the cheapest way to keep replacing blades as soon as there's the slightest resistance is to invest in one or two good colored pencil sharpeners and then buy cheap kids' sharpeners on sale, break them to get the new blade and screw it into the artist sharpener. One exception is the Little Red All-Art, which is cheap online. I just order those by the dozen and reorder when I'm down to the last three or four.

Prismacolor is the only major brand that sells unsharpened colored pencils where you will need to sharpen 132 pencils at a time on getting a new set -- and they are cheaper in sets than as individual replacements. This is where an electric or hand crank sharpener can really help. Keep it clean by running a normal No. 2 graphite pencil through it, and you can use it to sharpen colored pencils indefinitely. I save the hand sharpener for the most delicate ones that have already crumbled once or twice in my Exacto electric sharpener, and use the electric most of the time. This will save you blisters. Always empty the shavings compartment often though, because when it packs tight and clogs the grinders you will start losing pencil points.

Erasers are cheap, and I like having two kinds always available. Kneaded or putty erasers are gray, cheap, square and they squish into any shape you want like Silly Putty. They can be used to lift colored pencil by squishing them into the shape you want, pressing them on the color you want to lighten and peeling off. Repeat till it's as light as you want or can get it.

White plastic or vinyl erasers are good for erasing graphite, for erasing Col-Erase, and for serious attempts at going back to white on tough paper. They're good for cleaning up stray marks and damage the paper less than some other sorts. These are either rectangles or sticks in a holder, both are handy.

Electric erasers can be used to create highlights especially on tough heavy paper. They are also good for cleaning up stray marks in a white area.

Colored Pencil Brands and Types

Colored pencils aren't just a children's medium or an illustrator's medium any more. Fine artists like Bernard Poulin, Gary Greene, Cecile Baird and Arlene Steinberg have built careers on colored pencil realism. At its best, colored pencil paintings go beyond photorealism to images so true that they seem alive when compared to a photo. Best of all, like oil painting, pastel painting or watercolors, you can learn all the skills you need to create masterpieces as wonderful as theirs. All of these fine artists and many more have written books on how to paint or draw with colored pencils.

When you do buy a good book on colored pencil realism, or several, be sure to get good, artist quality supplies as well as the book. While an experienced artist could take a set of children's Crayolas and produce a drawing that impresses people, that drawing still won't have the quality they'd create if they used the more expensive artist materials available. Unlike many things in life, brand names in colored pencils and art paper aren't just commercial fluff and a product image. Each company has proprietary formulas, proprietary colors and textures that affect your final results.

One way to test which brand of artist grade colored pencils is best for your hand without spending too much money is to purchase a Colorless Blender, such as the Prismacolor Colorless Blender, the Lyra Splender Blender or the Derwent Blender & Burnisher set. All of these are useful and all will get used up on later drawings, so you might as well get whichever is available at your local art store or order them online. Then choose a dark blue pencil like Indigo Blue from each of the artist brands that come in Open Stock. Alternately, you can choose a dark brown. Blue or brown, get one from each brand.

The trick to this way of testing is that dark blue and dark brown are two colors that always look good in a monochrome drawing. The value range is so long that it's like drawing with black for what you can accomplish with it. The blender helps you get the lightest tints by blending with the white paper, and whatever brand you like best is the one to buy a big set in. Or you may find you need a couple of sets, say, Prismacolor Premier and Prismacolor Verithin, so that you can paint with soft pencils and detail or clean up edges with hard pencils. Sanford Prismacolor and Derwent both produce hard and soft pencils that can be used together.

Derwent Coloursoft are very soft and opaque. Derwent Artist and Derwent Studio both have the same core material (leads). They are hard and dry, holding a sharp point and good for details or textured work. Prismacolor Premier are soft, waxy and translucent. Prismacolor Verithin are hard, come in matching colors with Prismacolor Premier, and make a good combination for detailing. Faber-Castell Polychromos is a good all-around colored pencil, a little harder than Prismacolor Premier or Derwent Coloursoft, but softer than Verithin or Derwent Studio/Artist. Blick Studio Artist is about like the Polychromos on softness -- still quite soft, but not in the supersoft range, yet capable of holding a fine point easier than the supersoft range.

Koh-I-Noor Progresso woodless colored pencils come in a short range of only 24 colors, but they are a great workhorse for any artist who wants to create large works. Being woodless, they last longer. They are reasonably soft, in the Polychromos range, and when a sharp point isn't needed, a blunt point can wear down to a large angled surface for covering big areas faster with soft tonal layers. They are very good for filling in and the 24 colors in the larger set include most of the colors needed for covering large areas. You can lower your costs in the long run by using Koh-I-Noor Progresso and layering over it more lightly with the more expensive pencils. These are also the least expensive artist grade brand that I know of, the best bargain for a beginner who wants to start with a 12 or 24 color set.

Lyra Rembrandt, Caran d'Ache Pablo and Walnut Hollow colored pencils have a different core formula that is oil based. This makes them soft and a bit slippery. Lyra Rembrandt pencils are very transparent, so if you like layering colors over each other this may be a good choice. They handle a little differently and take some getting used to. Pablos are the Rolls Royce of colored pencils, more expensive than the other brands regardless of supplier, but worth the money for how soft and pigment-rich they are.

Most of the good colored pencil realism books out there will recommend several pencils from each of these artist brands when completing one of their step by step projects. You can either buy individual pencils at higher prices, or decide which set will be your "anchor" set and add individual colors to it as needed, or adapt the instructions to use the nearest colors in the brand you have.

Derwent Studio and Artist colored pencils have a different texture too, more like graphite pencils because they have a clay base. Instead of clay mixed with graphite, they have clay mixed with colored pigments and the "dry" feel is something artists either love or hate. It is especially good if your favorite type of colored pencil realism is "textured" colored pencil drawing.

A textured colored pencil drawing looks like a drawing. White flecks of paper or flecks of the paper color show through, and the subject may be vignetted or fade off toward the edges of the picture. Varying how loose or tight you work, shading by how much pressure you put on the pencil or by successive layers and not burnishing will result in a textured colored pencil drawing. This can be as strikingly realistic as a pencil drawing by Degas or a silverpoint by da Vinci. Macaw is an example of one of my better textured colored pencil drawings, done with Derwent Artist colored pencils.

Macaw by Robert A. Sloan

Macaw by Robert A. Sloan

Solvents, pencil cases and accessories

Solvents can be used to melt colored pencil layers and treat them as if they were watercolor pencils. Bestine rubber cement thinner is a classic, and very good at dissolving Prismacolors, it's the illustrator's choice. Probably because back in the day, they always had some around for removing rubber cement in art departments! But you can also use odorless turpentine from your oil set or various other solvents. Always be careful with these solvents. Even if they are odorless, the fumes can be dangerous, so be sure to keep it closed and use only small amounts at a time in an area with good ventilation. If it evaporates faster than water, you are probably hurting your lungs without ventilation.

With solvents, you can turn a first layer of your painting into an underpainting that reduces the number of layers you need to add to reach the color you want. It's a good trick in several books and a lot of fun. Or you can skip those and get a set of watercolor pencils to use for that layer, using safe nontoxic water as your solvent of choice.

Koh-I-Noor and Cretacolor both make pencil extenders. These are handles with a gripper on the end and a sliding ring that comes up to tighten the prongs over a stub of pencil too short to hold. I have used up a Prismacolor Indigo Blue down to where I had only 1/8" left of the barrel using my Koh-I-Noor pencil extenders, and bought four of them so that I can use up my stubs four colors at a time. They're not expensive and pay for themselves in your getting more out of the pencils you bought.

The same thing is true about those expensive fancy leather or nylon pencil cases and pencil easels that have elastic bands to hold one or three pencils against a padded interior. Many artist grade pencils suffer from Internal Breakage. So far in my experience, Prismacolors suffer most from it. Pencil cases with elastic bands that hold the pencils flat inside the easel or case will protect them from banging into each other in a jar or in their tins. When they get banged, the lead can crack inside the wood. You don't know that the pencil is damaged until you go to sharpen it and point after point wobbles and falls out as soon as it's sharp. That can drive you nuts.

I bought leather cases for my Prismacolors and a couple of other sets, then discovered the less expensive easel cases were just as good and that some tins or cases are better protection than others. Cretacolor tins have a foam pad over the pencils that makes good protection.

Getting the leather ones is a mild luxury that I enjoy, but the easel cases are a little handier for spreading flat and seeing all the pencils at the same time. Global Classic leather cases are a bit more portable since a large easel can be wide. Which cases you like become a matter of personal taste and convenience, but getting one can save you from buying a lot of replacement pencils without getting full use out of the ones you replaced.

I like to use a common masonite clipboard to support small colored pencil paintings, and curl up in an easy chair to work on them. When I do larger works, I use a larger masonite clipboard drawing board and still curl up in an easy chair because I'm disabled and drafting chairs hurt my back. But many undisabled artists like a tlited drawing surface like the top of a drafting table. You can either get a drafting table for your work area, or get a drawing board that has flip down legs to create a temporary tilted surface on a table. Work out what ergonomics are right for your body. Height, arm length, reach and whether you like standing or sitting more are all good things to consider when setting up your art area as well as space and cost.

Textureless or Textured?

Textured drawing has two advantages. It is faster, relying on basic drawing skills and negative space to create a realistic effect that doesn't pretend to be anything but a drawing. It uses up less of the pencils to create a large work too, since you aren't layering over every inch of the paper surface. If this is your preferred style, Bet Borgeson, Bernard Poulin and Lee Hammond's books will be useful, as well as any good book on drawing in general.

Textureless colored pencil work results in colored pencil painting. It can be so realistic and rich that it goes beyond photography. Either strokes are hidden and blended together so completely you don't see them, or they are painterly and contribute to the texture of the subject. Masterful Color by Arlene Steinberg, Painting Light with Colored Pencil by Cecile Baird, and most of Gary Greene's books focus on textureless colored pencil painting.

You can use any of the artist brands of colored pencils for textured colored pencil drawings, even the very soft and smudgy ones behave like using smudgy B range graphite pencils. The difference is in how they are used and whether you burnish the results with white, light colors or the clear Colorless Blenders.

Be prepared to spend a long time on one artwork and use up a lot of pencils unless it's small if you want to do realistic colored pencil painting. Prismacolor Premier with Prismacolor Verithin and Prismacolor Premier Lightfast are strong pencils for this technique, so are Derwent Colourfast or Caran d'Ache Pablo. Polychromos and Progresso are pretty good for either.

Student or University grade colored pencils can be used in a pinch. They are sometimes lightfast, but with less pigment concentration they are likely to take more work to cover an area. There is one student grade pencil that's inexpensive but tremendously useful for any serious colored pencil artist: Sanford Prismacolor Col-Erase. These pencils have precisely the texture of a normal No. 2, HB graphite pencil. The crummy pink eraser on the end will stain your paper, but with Col-Erase as your sketch pencils, you can draw the original sketch in a color that matches or complements your later layers and get more vivid results than if your undersketch was in graphite. They won't gray or muddy transparent colors laid over them.

They're also great for textured colored pencil sketching in exactly the way an HB pencil is good for sketching. You can create beautiful art with Col-Erase and they are inexpensive compared to the artist grade pencils. Use a white vinyl or plastic eraser with them and they are very malleable. This makes them a good beginner tool because they can actually erase back to white with the same effort as a normal No. 2 graphite pencil. Col-Erase are best as sketchbook pencils, but just as many artists serendipitously get one of their greatest drawings on a middle page in their sketchbooks, you can wind up with gorgeous results just using those.

If you are on a limited budget and getting your books from the library, try Col-Erase or Koh-I-Noor Progresso first. Get a 12 or 24 color set or order both sets online. Waiting for a week can get you much better prices online because the overhead is much lower for running a mail order business than running a physical store, especially in a good location. Watching for sale coupons and ordering all your supplies together may reduce cost still further -- you can order the cheap sets and combine that order with the one-pencil blue or brown test pencils of the fancy brands and decide on your anchor set after getting the package and using them.

Ferns, Moss and Water by Robert A. Sloan is a textureless colored pencil painting done on bright green Canson Mi-Tientes paper with Prismacolor Premier colored pencils.

Ferns, Moss and Water by Robert A. Sloan is a textureless colored pencil painting done on bright green Canson Mi-Tientes paper with Prismacolor Premier colored pencils.

Taking your own photo references and sketching

Finally, we come to something to draw! It's best for realism to both sketch your subject in preliminary drawings (which can be in colored pencil, especially Col-Erase, as color notes for the final piece), and in photos. While detailed film photography gives wonderful depth and detail and a good photographer can get publishable results just in reference photos, what I've found is that just to remember the subject and see where the shadows are -- you don't need more resolution than the details you want to include. You can even use a phone camera or keyring camera to take your own digital reference photos.

Quality digital photos have an advantage of more detail and truer color. But a cheap camera combined with good color notes may be even better for getting it right. One advantage of little cameras and phones is that you are likely to have it with you when you see something worth drawing. Snap photos of anything remotely interesting. A crumpled piece of paper on the sidewalk on the way to work may have an interesting shadow and be just the object you need in the foreground of a surreal dream scene. Take photos from many different angles. Sort them by subject in your computer, print out the ones you want to use in black and white and then use your color notes to remember what exact colors the light produced.

Remember that you can change that too. The color of a salmon rose in bright sunlight may be the color you want to use in your still life for a yellow rose that had a beautiful shape. Printing out in black and white leaves you more room for imagination.

Best of all, your phone-cam shots and digital photos are all copyrighted to you as much as your art is. There is no question of needing permission from a photographer, though if you take photos of people it's important to gain a model release from the person before doing the artwork. Most people I've met are flattered and willing to sign that release, unless they're shy. So if you like doing people, preprint some model releases and bring them when you go out looking for subjects, give a signed copy to the model and keep one for your records. Underage models need a parent's permission.

Papers and Surfaces

This is the other area where brand names matter. The paper you use should be good acid free artist paper at a minimum. Sketchbook and drawing pad paper is good enough to start, but you will get much better results with more expensive, higher quality papers. It should have some tooth but not a rough surface like rough watercolor paper unless you plan to do textured art on a very large scale.

My personal favorite is common to several of my favorite authors. Rising Stonehenge has a soft surface, just enough tooth to really hold colored pencil layers, can take more layers than most papers and comes in a range of seven colors that include white, warm white, soft neutrals like gray and fawn, and black. It is 100% rag, there is no wood fiber in its composition. This makes it stronger and gives it more lasting archival quality. The fine-grain tooth of Rising Stonehenge allows more control of fine details and clean lines than papers with a rougher surface.

Vellum Bristol is much less expensive and a good choice. Smooth Bristol may have a glossy surface the pencil doesn't stick to.

For tinted papers, Canson Mi-Tientes or Fabriano Tiziano are both good. Use the smooth side on Canson Mi-Tientes. It's a big shortcut to colored pencil drawing to use a colored paper under your art. It will tone everything you do, and save your filling in layer on layer of the base color -- and that base color will predominate in the drawing. Ferns, Moss and Water is a textureless colored pencil painting I did on bright green Canson Mi-Tientes. I used the paper color to create that overwhelming feel of reflected green that little hollows in a forest get when all the light comes through the crowns of summer trees. You can get very dramatic effects in fewer layers with colored paper.

Be careful to keep a strip or patch of the colored paper handy or give your art wide margins for color tests. Every color in your set will blend with the paper color to a new mixture. My mixed blacks done with Sepia and Indigo came out as dark blue on the bright green Canson paper, so I had to use the Black pencil in the deepest darks which I almost never do on white.

It's fun to experiment with different papers. Canson Mi-Tientes comes in some inexpensive pads for scrapbooking that have five colors each, and so if you like drawing on colored paper, these pads are a chance to try different colors without buying a full sheet of each color. Also, some art stores carry 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of Canson Mi-Tientes in the full range of colors, letting you choose them in the store.

Rising Stonehenge also comes in pads. Though the pads are only in white, they are a bargain for convenience and the amount of paper you get for your dollar. I use my Stonehenge pad often. The smallest pad is 5" x 7" and this is a convenient size for serious many-layered colored pencil painting because the project won't take all year to finish. Your choice as to how long you want to take and how large you want to work. I tend to work small, and do more different paintings.

Another good type of paper for colored pencil drawing or painting is watercolor paper. Each brand is a little different in its shade of white, the exact surface texture and quality. Less expensive watercolor paper will have some wood content, more expensive papers will be 100% rag. Try different papers. Hot Press is smooth watercolor paper. This is very good for getting fine detail, and I tend to prefer it. Cold Press has some tooth and may have a visible texture of lines, woven texture or irregular patches of raised hills and valleys. This is good when you do textured colored pencil drawing and want to break lines to use the texture for shading.

Rough watercolor paper is best for very large art because the texture is big. The hills are huge. You can't do fine details easily on rough watercolor paper unless you burnish it flat with the back of a spoon in the area where you'll use the texture -- a combination effect that can be striking in textureless drawing as the outer loose scribbly areas break on the rough texture and the finest details are done on the mashed-down area. You can contrast textures doing this and it can be fun. But it can also be done on cold press paper.

A huge advantage to any watercolor paper is that you can use watercolors to underpaint your colored pencil painting or drawing. Whenever you do a bad watercolor painting, if you don't like the painting, just use it as an underpainting and go over it with colored pencils till it's a good colored pencil painting. If it is too dark or muddy, you can rinse it off to lighten and brighten the hues and just have blurry tinted paper to draw on. The patches, lines and echoes of the watercolor experiment become a starting point, perhaps for a completely different subject. It can be fun.

But if you start with clean watercolor paper and do your first layer in watercolor or watercolor pencils and then wash them, you are working with the advantage of tinted paper to enrich your colors -- tinted in the color you want under that element. You can do someone's portrait by painting in just the face area with pumpkin orange. Use other colors for the background elements, brighter than the final painting or more neutral to make the face pop out. Light neutrals, pinkish tones, browns, dark neutrals and white over that orange will create a great pale skin tone or good rich browns for darker complexions. Experiment a bit to get the mixtures right, but treat the bright orange as one of the colors in the mixture. Using blue over orange is a mixture that gives browns and grays, so you don't even have to stick to browns to get skin tones over orange underpainting.

Sanded papers intended for pastels will chew through pencils like water in a sugarbowl. They can hold many layers, but are hard to work with, especially for beginners. Try this if you have some around from doing pastels and don't mind using up lots of your Progressos or Prismacolor Art Stix, or resharpening your pencil every minute or two. The effect will be closer to pastel than you'd get on other surfaces.

Velour surfaces like Hahnemuhle Velour Paper give a soft effect and are excellent for textured drawing because they have an interesting texture. Use a soft pencil with it like Prismacolor, Pablo or Coloursoft. Don't go for much layering, work directly with the paper color as part of the art. This will make a fast, powerful artwork that has its own bright charm. Colors may be very bold on the velour paper if you go heavy on them.

Rice paper is very soft and has an interesting surface. I tried it years ago and had a lot of trouble using it for watercolor or ink painting, but my botched watercolors turned into beautiful colored pencil drawings when I used them as tinted paper. If you have rice paper around or are buying different papers to try them, you may want a sheet of it just to see what your style looks like on it. An advantage of rice paper is that some types of Asian painting paper loosely called "rice paper" are extremely archival high quality papers that will help your art last for literal centuries -- paintings done on them have lasted millennia. So if you look into Asian art supplies, don't forget that a painting paper can be used for drawing too.

Crescent mat board, museum board, quality illustration board, watercolor board and other boards have the advantage of thickness. You don't need to use a drafting table with them, but make sure that the boards are acid free and high quality. Their surfaces are often the same good art papers you'd use as papers, but they are handy. If you want top quality, pay attention to whether the board the surface paper is glued to is 100% rag like museum board, or at least buffered to help preserve the art. Archival materials are better for longevity but some types of illustration board are intended for illustrations in which quality prints rather than the original is what's intended to last. So check boards for whether they're art boards or illustration board and decide how much you're willing to spend depending on your skills and budget.

Experiment with different pencils, boards and papers. If you draw the same subject more than once with different supplies, two things will happen. You will get more skilled with that subject, the self portrait or rose or bird or old barn will be easier to draw every time you do it, learning from each try. This will also help you discover how each of these pencils behaves in your hand, what the best techniques for it are, and which one you want to invest in a large set for your anchor set.

Lighting, Work Area and Extras

Good lighting is important. Daylight corrected bulbs for regular fixtures are cheaper than daylight corrected lamps with special bulbs and may be a good inexpensive way to try daylight-corrected light, they are also good for saving money as they use less electricity and last longer. Good lighting will improve the quality of your work and it will also go faster as you don't have to take your time squinting and figuring out what to do where or how to get the colors right. Easel lamps, clamp lamps and gooseneck art lamps will allow you to use directional light on models or still life subjects though, and I like my Daylight lamp for many of those reasons.

Beyond all these accessories there are other drawing aids like opaque projectors, light boxes, drafting tools, and magnifiers. The more serious you become as a hobbyist or future professional, the more likely you are to try these things and get some benefit from them. Look around your studio at tools you may already have for other crafts or art mediums. You may already have useful items to help your colored pencil painting. I use my magnifier for fine details and miniature art as much as for crafts, and it lets me see detail in fine-grained reference photos without blowing them up as well as draw finer details.

When you are skilled enough that nonartists like and enjoy your work, the hobby can pay for itself. Good art supplies always pay for themselves even at an intermediate skill level. So gradually build your studio to suit yourself. Keep things simple or enjoy every convenience made, or take a combination approach by keeping some things simple and lavishing care on others -- I have no drafting table but I love my magnifier, leather pencil cases, light box and Daylight lamp.


cds on May 25, 2016:

Such a good article ... quality content and beautiful writing style. I came to this article via the ones on buying a large set of colored pencils and reviewing Polychromos and greatly enjoyed all of them. Will be back to read more ... thank you!

Shraddha on May 08, 2016:

Very informative article. Loved it. Gv me a fair idea of how little I knew abt water color pencil drawings. Need to study this stuff a lot.

eleanor on April 13, 2012:

Thank you so much for all of the details. This is very useful and will be most helpful for people with whom I work.


Darlyne on December 08, 2011:

Do you use an easel for colored pencil drawing?

bla bla on October 09, 2010:

its so awesome

Krinkles on January 06, 2010:

Jerry, you either like an artist's style or you don't. It's a bit childish for you to label those styles you don't fancy as "not good enough"

Jerry on January 05, 2010:

your art is not good enough..

This artist -Johannes Wessmark- has shown his art..Well done..

Jerry on January 05, 2010:

Actually ur art is no standard enough for realism.. Try harder..

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 30, 2009:

Whether Polychromos or Pablo are better depends on your hand and technique. I'd suggest trying a few colors in either - choose good mixing colors or colors you know you will use a lot, like greens if you do landscapes. Try them out, then get a big set of the one that fits your personal style best. I love the Polychromos but the Pablo are very expensive. I love those too but haven't bought the big set yet.

FreedomChic1776 on August 12, 2009:

I enjoyed your article. You gave me several great ideas. I'm usually more of a graphite artist, but I do an occasional piece with different prismacolors. Thanks for the hub.

zee on August 07, 2009:

can u give me a reference? which one is better? polychromos or pablo?

zee on August 07, 2009:

can u give me a reference? which one is better? polychromos or pablo?